During the time I lived in Tâi-lâm (2002-2004) I’m sorry to say I never quite got around to visiting the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature in that city. Now with the excellent High Speed Rail in operation a trip from Pang-kiô (Banqiao) to Tâi-lâm takes just 94 minutes, instead of the four to five hours it used to take by road or rail, and so a trip down south for a period of only a day or two is suddenly a realistic proposition. Among the many places I visited in a hectic weekend recently was the Tâi Bûn Kóan, as the museum is usually known in Taiwanese.
The title of the institution can create a little confusion; in fact it is a museum for all the languages of Taiwan, including Taiwanese but also featuring (in order of arrival on the island) Aboriginal languages, Old Dutch, Hakka, Japanese and Mandarin. The bulk of the literature written in Taiwan has been in either Japanese or Mandarin, although there is also a selection of Classical Chinese literature from before the Japanese period.
Based in the red-brick former City Hall of Tâi-lâm, which dates back to Japanese colonial times, the museum provides an impressive setting for the exhibits within. Yet it was not always this way. After the city government moved to the more spacious surroundings of An-pêng the building fell into disrepair with little effort being made to preserve the crumbling superstructure of this imposing reminder of times gone by. Happily the decision was made to renovate the place and put it to work for a new purpose – displaying the convoluted linguistic past of this island.
Before you even enter the museum you’ll find a series of short texts on the low walls which surround it, in various languages including Mandarin, one of the aboriginal languages (I was unable to find out which) and Taiwanese, written in Hàn-lô, which you can see above and to the left.
The exhibits inside range from original texts to spoken word installations to recreations of the living conditions of some of Taiwan’s most famous writers. A good effort is made to cover all the languages spoken today or previously in Taiwan, while also not forgetting writers outside Taiwan who had a great influence on the literature here, such as Lu Xun. The example exhibit above is written in Old Dutch.
In the basement of the building is the library, which houses an impressive collection of texts related to Taiwanese literature, despite the fact that there are rows of shelves still left to fill. During my hour or so browsing the shelves and dipping in to the odd book here and there on a Saturday afternoon, I saw exactly seven people who ventured past the entrance to the library, although there were a fair few students taking advantage of the quiet in the study area just outside the library.
If you happen to be in the former capital one day with an hour or two on your hands, you could do worse than wander around soaking up the treasures of Taiwan’s linguistic past and present. The museum is found on the roundabout (traffic circle) at the confluence of seven major roads: Zhongzheng (or Jhongjheng in the Tongyong system which the Tainan City Government insists on using), Nanmen, Kaishan, Qingnian (Cingnian), Zhongshan (Jhongshan), Gongyuan and Minsheng, a very short walk from the Confucian Temple.